Art and the Great Hunger

Gorta – Lilian Lucy Davidson

The world’s largest collection of Famine-related art on loan from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

Following its display at Dublin Castle and the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen it moves this month to Derry/Londonderry at the historic walled city’s £4m, purpose-built Irish language, cultural and enterprise centre An tSeaneaglais (Glassworks), Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin.

Irish art collector Sean Sexton thinks some of the paintings are ill-chosen or mismatched, there’s not enough contemporary correspondence to give a true picture of the horror and that, overall, it’s a missed opportunity, as he writes below.


At the court of human history, in judging a traumatic event such as the Famine, only oral or written evidence, observed at that time, would be accepted.

Hence, most of the paintings in the 19th-century section of this exhibition would be dismissed as unsuitable or hearsay evidence.

They depict cosy Irish cottage interiors, a girl dancing to a fiddler, homesteads with warm fires. Most have rosy-cheeked fat children in them. In fact, there is not one starving person in all of the 19th-century paintings.

So bad and irrelevant is this important section that the curator Niamh O’Sullivan herself said that all the artists were not up to it. She had to bring in a Great Famine painting of a starving couple burying their infant, made in 1946 by Lilian Lucy Davidson.

Alexander Williams – “Cottage: Achill Island”

What was needed here were boards on the walls displaying begging letters and written evidence from the many observers of the Famine at the time – French, English, American – and rural, starving people.

The big video is well worth watching and contains much information although the verbal commentary does not match the illustrations.

The smaller video is a gem and should have a much bigger screen but badly needs a commentary instead of captions.

The second, and modern, section’s Paul Henry rural landscape, mediocre Jack Yeats seascape, and modernist chocolate box work of Robert Ballagh, have no business here.

Michael Farrell’s Black 47 attempts to depict Trevelyan at the court of human history and fails badly.

Derrynane – Jack Yeats

In this massive painting, there is no guilt, anger, shame, starvation, threats or accusations. Goya or Otto Dix are certainly not here.

But there are some great modern sculptures of the Famine by Glenna Goodacre, Rowan Gillespie, John Behan and Margaret Lyster Chamberlain.

The modern design of the exhibition catalogue is not suited to the 1840s with some of the illustrations repeated three times and words like chiaroscuro, abstractionism, expressionism, art and artists’ names dropped everywhere, totally unsuited.

In the preface by President Michael D. Higgins, and the foreword by John D. Lahey, there is one obvious word missing.

John Coll – “Famine Funeral”

It is not until page fifty-five of this two hundred-and-twenty-page catalogue that Britain is mentioned in the form of Lord John Russell’s Government.

Some of the chapters are well-written but the whole catalogue is overloaded with art terms and totally unsuited to the Famine.

Where is the Gaelic language in the exhibition? Itself, a work of art destroyed by the Famine.

Very little of the material in the exhibition is in serious Famine books and that’s the real verdict.

Erskine Nicol – “Outward Bound” and “Homeward Bound”

Famine evokes the idea that the crops failed, and the rains did not come. (But) Britain, with the vast resources of the British Empire, chose to cause Ireland to starve.

Famine is now becoming a dirty and tarnished word. A better description is The Great Starvation.

Sean Sexton is an author and photo-historian. He has been collecting art, and Irish paintings, in particular, since 1973. His collections have been exhibited in America, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and London. In 2016, as part of the 1916 Centenary celebrations, a collection of historical photographs he has acquired was displayed at The Photographers’ Gallery.


You might also be interested in this article

Black ’47: a revenge Western set during The Famine

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways